Stinky Mandarin Fish – Heavenly Taste But Hellish Smell

Stinky mandarin fish with stinky tofu in a white dish.
Photo by jyk10158102, c/o

Continuing on a theme of smelly foods having looked at stinky tofu, I thought we ought to take a brief look at Stinky Mandarin Fish ! Not one for the nose either when it comes to rancorous odours but it apparently has a divine flavour. In China fermented fish such as Suan Yu are very popular dishes and there is a very complex fermentation biology occurring. The understanding is still being developed but we look at some of the properties of a particular fish here. It can be compared with the fermentation of anchovy and of tune as in the production of garum by the Romans. The idea is quite old and helped people digest unpalatable foods using the equivalent of HP sauce.

Stinky Mandarin Fish is a delicacy from Anhui Province in China. The Mandarin fish is a freshwater species which tastes like a typical rock fish for all intents and purposes. It has the scientific name of Siniperca  chuatsi. However that is not where its power lies. It is marinated in salt and literally pressed in a barrel under very heavy stones for eight days where it ferments. The reason this was part of the process was to allow merchants which traveled around china to take the fish back to their families but wanted to prevent the fish from rotting. For many the rotting process had already started but the simply process created some incredible flavours.

Not only did the flavour change but the texture of the fish meat altered. To this meat mixture was added all sorts of ingredients to develop the flavour further. They added garlic, ginger, soy, and chili. In doing this, the stinky Mandarin Fish took on a mythical status.

The History Behind Stinky Mandarin Fish

 Like all histories behind famous foods, there is something of myth and legend. The governor in charge of the province called Anhui which was originally called Huizhou really liked fish. Because of geography his employees were looking for fish to assuage his appetite. The fish needed to be still living – in other words as fresh as possible before being eaten.  In one case, the merchant or worker, we are not entirely sure obtained some fish which started to go rotten because they died during their travel. To halt the process, the fish was heavily salted and then they were cooked with the various ingredients we mentioned earlier. It seems the governor thought the flavour so fantastic that the dish became a  rip-roaring success throughout China. 

To achieve success with the fermentation requires careful control to avoid ruining the experience and of course preventing food poisoning. The right amount of salt, the fermentation time and temperature and the application of pressure are all critical to avoid an overtly smelly food. It seems the change to the flesh of the Mandarin Fish is also an important quality measure because it flake extremely easily with chopsticks.

Scientists in China have examined those aroma volatiles that develop from the fish as well those prepared when spices and salt are added. using the sophisticated analysis techniques of an electronic nose combined with gas chromatography and mass spectrometry (GC-MS), they have found sixty one volatiles. The main ones creating the smell are trimethylamine, indole, sulphur‐containing compounds, acetic acid, esters and phenols which all increased with fermentation  on a continuous basis, whilst various aldehydes decreased. The key finding was that fermentation slowed the rate of spoilage and allowed enough pleasant tasting compounds to form (Li et al., 2013).

The dish incidentally is combined with that equally smelly but divine food, stinky tofu. That must be quite a combination !


Li, C., Wu, J., Li, Y., & Dai, Z. (2013). Identification of the aroma compounds in stinky mandarin fish (S iniperca chuatsi) and comparison of volatiles during fermentation and storage. International Journal of Food Science & Technology48(11), 2429-2437 (Article)

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